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Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Life in the Spirit is a life of suffering that leads to glory.
Such is the message of Romans 8:18-30, that glory is our inheritance, but that it is achieved through, and despite, suffering. Here we see the magnificent promise of God guaranteed in Christ and which we have the firstfruits of in the Spirit. Here, we see the acknowledgement that as Christ achieved glory through suffering, so will we. Here is the end of all prosperity gospels, the end of the Church scrabbling for power, the end of Christians claiming worldly glory as a replacement for the glory given to us by God.
Verses 18-21 make this clear. There is more packed into these verses alone than can really be covered in a single sermon. We see a parallelism with the fall in Genesis 3; where humanity goes, Creation follows. Why? It has to do with the immense stature humans were given in their creation by God. He made us in his image, which means we are representative of God in the world. We were designed and meant to exercise stewardship and rule over the world, to continue harnessing it into perfection, into greater and greater beauty. What was gifted to us by nature was meant to be given by us as a gift to the whole world. But then humanity sinned, and in sinning, whatever deep, mysterious, even spiritual connection we have with the rest of the creation was corrupted. Our corruption flowed into the rest, and the world according to Paul here bears the scars of our failure.
But what was corrupted and lost in our sin is also promised redemption through our redemption. We did not lose our stature, our gift of being image bearers, rulers of creation, but now with Jesus Christ as our head, and so through our healing and salvation so all the world, the whole cosmos will be redeemed, healed, restored. Glorified.
Note what Paul says in verses 22-23. If you have had a child, or were present with your spouse or another during their labor, you know the excruciating, mind-numbing pain that is involved. The creation is groaning as in labor pains, waiting to be healed; so do we, waiting for the redemption of our bodies, like a mother suffering through her labor until achieving the joy of their child being born. But it doesn’t stop there! The creation groans, we groan, and in vs. 26, the Holy Spirit groans for us (I prefer the NRSV but have to correct it here). When we do not know how to pray, the Spirit does, groaning with us and to the Father relaying what it is we experience and need. We our in the valley of the shadow of death. We live in a world of suffering. Some of that is simply the nature of the world; all of us get older, all of us can break bones, be cut and bleed, grow tired; likewise, we can all experience hurt and emotional anguish, depression, sadness, feel the burden of love.
And as Christians, there is an expectation of this as we follow Jesus, of a unique suffering we bear as well. Not only do we suffer in kind with our fellow humanity, but we are also told to reject so much that we could fight for to make our lives slightly more comfortable, more secure, more bearable. We are called to love all people, even our enemies, which opens us to tremendous risk; we are called to reject greed, which means we are unlikely to compete with the comfort of the wealthy; we are called to exercise self-control, which means binging food, drink, entertainment, sex, or anything else to numb the pain of life cannot be our default; we are called to pour ourselves out in love as Christ did for us, and in so doing we often find ourselves empty.
We do not, however, live the suffering life of the Christian without hope, as those do who simply live in a world of pain and can only treat the symptoms but never the cause. “For in hope we were saved.” The Christian life is not one of achieving relief and glory now, but in the reign of God and total healing of Creation that will be our inheritance on the return of Christ, the end of this age and institution of the Age to Come. In that, it is hard, it is full of tears and struggles and pain, to the point where we do not know what to pray.
This is one of the main critiques of Christianity from many in the modern age. Nietzsche in particular accused us of being “cattle” and of using a “slave morality” to rule others. He said we are perpetual victims, using our victimhood to rule others by making them feel bad for their strength. The Christians he knew probably were like that. But not us, when we understand rightly, for as we will see next week, we are “more than conquerors through” Christ.
In our lives here, however, we are being conformed to the image of God’s Son. We suffer, yes, and our glory awaits us later, yes, but we are not simply here to suffer and wail and not get our reward until later. We have the Spirit, the firstfruits of our salvation, and the promise that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Not now, mind you, but in the age to come, yet, by the Spirit we are able to experience the joy and beauty of our future glory, not in full but in part. We participate with the firstborn as siblings by grace, brothers and sisters of Jesus, we adopted and he the natural Son.
Predestination here is not really about individual people, so we should avoid seeing this as dealing with Calvinism vs. Wesleyanism or what have you. It is speaking of the Gentiles here, we who were not a part of Israel, and yet by his grace God has abounded in grace to include us, and all in the Church, all in Christ are guaranteed glory.
Our suffering is not pointless, but by merit of our following Jesus it is filled with purpose. We don’t need to seek it out, it will come of its own accord when we follow Jesus in lives of humility, grace, and love. But when we do suffer, we are able to see the beauty in it, and in the world despite it; when we are bruised, we are reminded of the restoration we will receive and are able yet to smile; when we perceive the the human misery in the world, we can try to impart hope through our words and our actions; when we are beaten down by the world, we can look with confident expectation to the future Age when we will be not only restored but taken beyond our natures now, into the life of Christ, glorified, more human than human, and immortal. All, by the grace and power of God, who is our salvation, age unto Age. Amen.
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